Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When Rhetorical Questions Fail

This advert uses a rhetorical question to persuade the consumer to buy their "miracle" weight loss product. Rhetorical questions are often employed in advertising, as it is suggested that they increase the elaboration of message content, encouraging the consumer to think of the advert for longer. Past research has shown that including rhetorical questions in weak messages has been shown to reduce persuasion: the message content is important.

Zillman (1972) explored the effectiveness of rhetorical questions in his study. The participants were told that the research was concerned with the decision process within a jury. they all received background information on the same case and then their attitudes towards the defendant were assessed as wither favourable, unfavourable or neutral, Following this, participants were required to listen to a recorded summation from the defense attorney. There were two conditions: a statement summation with no rhetorical questions and a question summation where the defense attorney included rhetorical questions. Lastly, participants were asked what prison sentence they would suggest.

Zillman suggested this difference was observed due to the minimal intent to persuade. The persuasion employed in this experiment was subtle and left the decision in the hands of the participant without them feeling  like they had been explicitly manipulated. In contrast, the advert trying to sell Sensa is overloaded with obvious persuasive techniques, it is "Free!" and can allegedly work wonders. It seems way to good to be true and consequently unrealistic, leaving the consumer feeling like there must be a catch.

As can be seen by the table above, when the statement included rhetorical questions participants suggested a significantly lower prison sentence across conditions (Unfavourable = 4 years; Favourable = 1.5 years) in comparison to the statement only condition (Unfavourable = 6.6 years; Favourable = 2.6 years) where participants suggested a longer prison sentence on average. 

To improve this advert, therefore, the poster should decrease the number of techniques used and reduce the specificity of the rhetorical question, this could be done by eliminating a lot of the writing on the poster as there is a lot of information included. Additionally, instead of "Do you want to lose 30 pounds?" include the question "Do you struggle to lose weight?" this should ensure a more successfully persuasive advert.

Kiranjeet Kaur 


Zillmann, Dolf (1972), “Rhetorical Elicitation of Agreement in Persuasion,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21 (February), 159–65.

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